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Degree of concern: After canceling Russia, academics weigh consequences

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“Explain how you would effectively punish Russia for war crimes without endangering vital scientific collaboration.”

That’s the tricky exam question facing Europe’s universities, as they contemplate life after the Kremlin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and struggle with the implications of cutting institutional ties with Russia.

While attention in the early days of the war focused on rash moves like Milano-Bicocca University canceling — before reinstating — a course about iconic Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, Europe’s higher education sector is now reckoning with more deep-seated issues about collaboration with Russian academia. 

For one, the war is likely to prompt a brain drain of Russian academics, who are likely to be tempted abroad by bigger salaries and freedom in their research. But among those who remain — and some of their Western counterparts — there is regret over missed opportunities, particularly in climate research.

Some industry figures foresee scientific consequences as the sector slaps its own version of sanctions — canceling academic conferences, abandoning joint research projects and freezing cross-border funding — on Russian institutions. Others warn darkly of “cancel culture” and lost opportunities. 

Russia is important in fields such as climate and Arctic research and cutting ties “will actually set global scientific progress back,” said David Matthews, international editor at the Science Business research forum.

“But nonetheless, I think it’s more important to isolate Russia,” he said.

One area that will be particularly affected is permafrost research.

Fifty to 60 percent of permafrost globally is located in Russia, which also houses much of the world’s expertise on the special type of subsoil that stays continuously frozen, according to Ted Schuur, a Northern Arizona University ecologist and expert on permafrost.

When it melts, permafrost releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Even if the world keeps to an optimistic trajectory of containing global warming to 2C, says Schuur, this means it will add up to 20 percent more carbon or heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere — making collaboration on the issue vital.

“Russian science has a rich history and [a lot of] current activity in permafrost research,” he said. “Cutting off those ties just diminishes the overall scientific endeavour on permafrost.”

Last month, the EU announced it was stopping all ongoing funding to Russian public bodies — immediately terminating 56 Russia-EU academic research projects and grants, and ending all collaboration until further notice.

And 15 of the world’s largest academic publishers also said they would stop selling services — including all journals and databases — to Russia, effectively locking their scientists out of 97.5 percent of subscription-based scientific products.

At the Free University of Berlin, Director of International Affairs Herbert Grieshop canceled dual degree programmes with Russian partners, reducing revenue by up to €50,000 a year. In 2019, Russia-Germany institutional co-funded projects were worth €36.3 million, most of them in the sciences. The U.K. has also frozen research grant payments worth tens of millions of euros. More than half of Russian co-authored papers are with EU academics — many with Germans.

“​​What’s happened in terms of ties between the Russian and European research community, it’s been pretty dramatic,” Matthews said.

But not everyone has been impressed as joint academic posts and visiting professor exchanges have come to an abrupt end.

Cambridge-based academic Demetrius Floudas, an adjunct professor at Immanuel Kant University in Kaliningrad, says he used to travel up to four times a year to teach law in the Russian exclave.

“I’m really disappointed and upset,” he said. “For both sides, this is going to be detrimental; there had been growing ties.” Floudas estimates more than 1,000 European academics are in a similar position.

It’s important, also, that the backlash against Russia doesn’t go too far and Russian academics in Europe are protected, warned Michael Gaebel, director of the European University Association (EUA) which represents more than 800 universities.

He hit out, in particular, at the widely panned Dostoevsky ban by the Milanese university — and pointed to it as an example institutions should avoid following. 

“I hope this is the last round of cancel culture,” he said. “This simply does not make sense and it’s exactly what we don’t want.”

But ultimately, while boffins dispute where precisely the lines should be drawn, the West’s political goal of crippling Russia in retaliation for its deadly assault on Ukraine is likely to find success in the higher education field.

“For Russia, I think the longer term outcome is going to be potentially a big emigration of scientists,” said Matthews, the editor. “For their economic and technological edge, it will be a really major hit over the long-term.”

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